ROANOKE — Virginia’s 5th Congressional District has been full of surprises the past few years.
After just one term in office, Republican Rep. Tom Garrett abruptly announced in 2018 his struggle with alcoholism and that he wouldn’t run for reelection. Then, in a hastily assembled nomination contest, Denver Riggleman won the Republican nod by one vote. After a competitive race — which featured the Democratic opponent accusing Riggleman of being a fan of Bigfoot erotica — Riggleman won the seat. A few months into his term, Riggleman officiated at a same-sex marriage, offending social conservatives, and lost the party nomination a year later to self-described “bright red biblical conservative” Bob Good.
Democrat Cameron Webb is trying to pull off the latest plot twist Nov. 3: defeat Good in a sprawling district that stretches from the North Carolina line to the outskirts of Northern Virginia that President Donald Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016. It’s tough for Democrats to win in the district, which includes much of the Charlottesville area and was drawn to favor Republicans, but Webb has mounted an aggressive campaign against Good.
Webb has raised more than $4 million through the end of September, while Good has raised just under $1 million, according to federal election reports. More than $4 million in television advertising has been pumped into the race, with most of that money coming from the Webb campaign or outside groups attacking Good.
The last time a Democrat won the seat was in 2008, when Tom Perriello upset incumbent Republican Virgil Goode, aided by record-high Black turnout in Charlottesville and the small rural towns in the district, as well as Barack Obama’s run for president. Perriello lasted only one term after redistricting helped make the district a Republican stronghold.
Webb’s campaign theme is about unity, that he is a “consensus-builder.” The 37-year-old internal medicine doctor and director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia often mentions his time working as a White House fellow in the Obama and Trump administrations as one example of how he can put politics aside to work on policy.
“Why is it so important to win this race?” Webb said. “It’s not about Democrats winning or Republicans winning. It’s about the people of the 5th Congressional District winning. It’s about restoring this idea that everybody here has somebody who is their advocate fighting for them in Washington D.C.”
Good, 54, a former Campbell County supervisor and former Liberty University athletics officials, has focused his message on the political divide.
“This is an election to determine do we believe America is good or is America bad?” Good said at a campaign rally. “Do we want to preserve and fight for the things that have made this the greatest nation in the world and build upon those and ensure a greater future for our children and grandchildren? Or do we believe that America is an illegitimate evil nation, a racist nation that needs to be torn down and destroyed and remade in a socialist, Marxist image? That’s the alternative that’s being presented by the other side.”
When Good first challenged Riggleman for the party nod, he focused his message on hot-button issues such as banning abortion in all circumstances and limiting legal immigration. Since the convention, he’s been presenting himself as a Trump backer and supporting the president’s agenda. At campaign events, he says he’ll defend gun rights and support Trump’s energy policies. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He supports ending birthright citizenship and the process that the United States uses that prioritizes admitting immigrants with relatives living here. He says gridlock in Congress can be a good thing, and compromise is a “dirty word.”
“The last thing we need is more government control of our health care, more government control of our lives, more government assault on our freedoms, more government assault on our values, more government assault on innocent, precious life in the womb, more government assault on our economy, on our jobs,” Good said.
Good supporters say they like how his conservative values are unwavering.
“It’s critical that people know what they are going to get from the man they are sending to Washington,” said Barbara Sherman, a Bedford County resident who organized a series of rallies for women to meet Good.
Good has been stressing to voters that Webb is not as moderate as people may think, calling him a “radical” Democrat. He has been hammering away especially hard at saying Webb, whose father worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration, will defund the police. Webb says he does not support defunding the police, and has fired back at Good by pointing out Good voted to reduce funding to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office when he was a supervisor. Television ads attacking Webb — who is Black — have featured images of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, protesters rioting in the streets and Webb kneeling.
“Politics is made worse when people drive a wedge deeper,” Webb said about the attacks from Good.
Good and Webb have only met once — virtually — for a forum. Campaigning during the pandemic has presented challenges. Good has been holding events, including with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, where attendees weren’t wearing masks. Good has made dismissive remarks in the past about the seriousness of COVID-19, which is in stark contrast to Webb, who has been treating COVID-19 patients when he’s not campaigning.
Webb is running on a platform of supporting a public health insurance option, addressing racial and economic inequities, criminal justice reform and expanding educational opportunities, including tuition-free community and public college for low-income people.
As a doctor, Webb thinks he is well-suited to be in Congress as the country is trying to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. He wants to scale up testing capacity, supports additional stimulus payments to Americans and expanding eligibility and offerings in Medicaid and SNAP. On a recent tour of businesses in Nelson County, he heard from owners about the challenges they face in keeping people on payroll and the decline in revenue.
Justin Billcheck explained the struggles in the event production industry because he can’t put on concerts and festivals when people should be socially distancing.
“There’s no life raft coming for us,” Billcheck told Webb at Devils Backbone, where he puts together music events. “There’s no help coming. We’re not looking for a handout. I can cope with adversity and challenges, but I need adults in leadership.”
“This is an election about leadership for a lot of people,” Webb said. “And no one should feel like there’s no life raft coming to help them.”
While touring businesses in Nelson County, he stopped to visit Silverback Distillery, which the Riggleman family owns. Riggleman talked about the challenges in Congress, like when he’d catch blowback when he broke from the party on issues. Riggleman also complimented Webb’s campaign.
“You’re doing campaigning right, talking about issues and policy,” Riggleman said. “But what do you do when the other person is hiding?”
Riggleman hasn’t endorsed Good or even indicated a hint of support for him.
Wounds haven’t completely healed since Good defeated Riggleman in an unusual drive-thru convention. Social conservatives who hadn’t come around to Riggleman, who describes himself as having a “mean libertarian streak,” when he became the nominee two years ago were set off when he officiated at a same-sex wedding.
While many Riggleman supporters say they are reluctantly filling out the bubble on the ballot for Good, there are still some who say they intend to leave that section of the ballot blank or write in Riggleman. Signs and a billboard have popped up encouraging people to write in Riggleman’s name. The division has dogged Good for much of the campaign.
“I’ve been a Republican voter my whole life, but I’ve been taught to vote for the person, not the party,” said Ken Towler, who has lived in Campbell County his whole life and was a Riggleman supporter. “Bob Good is filled with hate and uses fear tactics, and we don’t need any more of that.”
Towler was one of a handful of Republican voters who showed up to an event at a residence in a wooded area of Bedford County one recent Saturday to do some skeet shooting with Webb.
“I’m very impressed with him,” Towler said of Webb. “I think he’s a straightforward person.”
Towler participated with a few other Republican voters in doing a television ad for the Webb campaign. In the ad, the residents rattle off their complaints with Good while he was a supervisor: voting for a budget that reduced funding for the sheriff’s office, not enough funding for K-12 schools and voting to raise ambulance fees.
“Bob was a disaster,” a woman says in the ad.
Noting the division among Republicans and an impressive Democratic candidate to run in a red district, political analysts at Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at UVa, a politics newsletter and website, have both rated the race as a “Toss Up.”
“I like a jump ball,” Webb said. “Whoever wants it more will get it.”